Converting bedsits into a contemporary home

Dan and Nathalie Petrone have transformed a large townhouse with a warren of cramped rooms into a light and spacious property that’s full of stylish modern touches

Faced with a rambling collection of musty old bedsit rooms, Nathalie and Dan Petrone had to really use their imagination to recognise the potential the property offered. Fortunately, they both have a creative eye, plus the good sense to know that hiring the right project team would help them realise that potential.

‘Before we bought this house in 2009, we were working and living in Amsterdam and also owned a flat in north London,’ says Dan. ‘Buying the house was all about trying to establish a family home and putting down roots in the UK. Tunbridge Wells seemed like a nice place to live, and this was the right property, the right size and in the right area of a large town.’

Fact file

The owners: Nathalie Petrone, who is an HR manager at a media company, lives here with her husband Dan, a manager in the tobacco industry

Dan had first spotted the property online, so the couple arranged to view it during one of their regular trips back to the UK. The fact that it was carved up into bedsits and had barely been touched since 1979 appealed to the couple. ‘We wanted to take on a big project and get it exactly as we wanted it, knowing that it would be our “forever home”,’ continues Dan. ‘We weren’t interested in making a profit because we plan to stay here for some time to come. As long as we didn’t over-invest and therefore lose money on the renovation work, we were okay with it.’

To help them with their project, the Petrones hired architect Steve Margate of Atelier – SM Architects ( ‘We walked round the house with him and showed him our scrapbook of design ideas,’ Dan recalls. ‘It’s definitely a good tip to put together an ideas book before you start an extensive project like this. We went through loads of homes magazines, cut out pictures that appealed to us and stuck them in the book. It was incredibly useful for communicating ideas to Steve. After several discussions, we distilled our wish list down to three main objectives: open-plan spaces, lots of light and a contemporary style.’

The ground floor of the house was a warren of little rooms on different levels, while on the first floor there were around eight rooms of various sizes. In the loft, a two-bedroom bedsit included a kitchen, bathroom and hallway. ‘The entire house felt very small and closed in,’ Nathalie recalls. ‘By opening it up, we would lose a few rooms but gain plenty of space and light. Although we wanted our home to have a modern feel, it was also important to us to retain some of the property’s Edwardian character.’

As the house hadn’t had much work done in more than 30 years, there was no central heating and only single glazing. All the kitchen floorboards were warped and showing signs of cupping – a problem created by dampness, where the underside of each floorboard has absorbed too much moisture, expanding and raising the boards at their edges. This was due to a wet cellar below the kitchen that regularly filled up with water after heavy rain.

Having obtained planning permission without any problems, the first job on the couple’s list was to tackle the structural work head-on. ‘The builders tanked the cellar, knocked out all the unwanted walls, put in temporary props to hold up the ceilings, took off the roof and removed all the windows,’ says Dan. ‘Then they took out all the floorboards, too. We were left with only the joists and brickwork – it was a hollow shell, basically.’

‘We had a bit of a nightmare early on, because the first building company left the house open to the elements,’ continues Nathalie. ‘We were still living in Amsterdam at the time, so we weren’t on site to keep an eye on things. We decided to hire a new builder, Oliver John, and employed a project manager, Sarah Greenwood of Walrond Fuller Chartered Surveyors (, to oversee everything in our absence and get the project finished before our planned return in April 2010.’

With Sarah at the helm, the project moved on apace. ‘Sarah was amazing – construction is such a male-dominated industry but she was brilliant at managing the builders,’ says Nathalie. On their return to the UK, the couple took the decision to move into a rented property nearby for six months so that the house could be completely finished before they moved in.

All the ground-level floors were replaced with new oak parquet – inspired by the flooring in the Petrones’ Amsterdam apartment. The windows were replaced with hardwood frames and high-spec double-glazing. ‘We took a while to deliberate over it, because they were very expensive,’ says Nathalie, ‘but as Dan said, windows are the eyes of a house, so we agreed to go ahead and buy them.’

The other structural work included remodelling the awkward front of the property to give it a more balanced appearance. ‘It was two storeys on the right side of the house, but only one storey on the left,’ explains Dan. ‘It used to look as though it had one eye open and one eye closed.’ On the right of the property, the ground-floor garage became a new study, while on the left, a sloping roof was removed and the wall built up to create a first-floor playroom.

‘Afterwards, the front of the house where we had extended looked a total mess, especially where the bricks had been punched through to add downpipes,’ says Nathalie. ‘We contacted a company called Make-up for Masonry to clean the brickwork and hand-tint the bricks so that they would match the old ones. It’s all chemical-free and the match is perfect.’

One of the main rooms that needed restructuring was the new kitchen-diner – originally three rooms but now knocked through to create a large open-plan space. ‘We didn’t want units above the worktops as we felt that would give a cramped effect,’ says Dan. ‘Nathalie and I debated the layout for ages until we came across Martin Bepey of bespoke kitchen designers Made in Wood. We liked his hands-on approach and the fact we could show him a unit from any kitchen and he’d offer to make it bespoke.’

The couple kitted out their new kitchen with sleek appliances, including an electric fan oven, two induction hobs, an extractor fan and dishwasher drawers. ‘The new dishwasher drawers are a godsend, as you can fill one drawer and set it to wash independently from the other,’ says Dan. ‘It means you can use the unit for storage, too.’

Perhaps the most extensive structural work involved remodelling the roof space to create a new open-plan master bedroom suite. Instead of the original poky loft rooms and dormer windows, the couple wanted a large gable window with a Juliet balcony, an open-plan bedroom and two huge new skylights above a freestanding bath. A walk-in dressing room at one end and a double shower and WC at the other were also factored into the new design.

Inspired by the freestanding baths in boutique hotels they’d stayed in, the couple looked to Louise Home of Ripples for ideas. ‘Designing an open-plan suite like this was quite a challenge,’ says Nathalie. ‘When you’re confined by walls it’s obvious where to place furniture against them. When you haven’t any walls, you have to work out where to put things as you go along. For example, keeping a half-height wall was our project manager Sarah’s idea, as it gave us somewhere to position the bed.’

Similarly, Louise thought it would be best for the bedroom parquet flooring to meet the bath area tiles in a diagonal line rather than straight across, as this would help to fuse the areas, rather than visually cut the room in two. The freestanding, mineral-cast bath was so heavy that it had to be winched into position, and the loft floor was strengthened with steel joists to support it. This impacted on the height of a bedroom below, as its high Edwardian ceiling had to be lowered to accommodate the drainage gradient for the bath pipework above.

At one end of the suite a double shower room is tucked away behind a modesty wall covered in metallic mosaic tiles. At the other is a walk-in wardrobe. ‘It’s designed like a boutique,’ says Nathalie, ‘which is why it has lots of open shelves and rails. It’s efficient in that you can see everything at once, but it means you have to fold clothes neatly before putting them away.’

The master bedroom suite is Nathalie’s favourite part of the house. ‘There’s no clutter; it’s warm thanks to the stove we installed, plus we enjoy a beautiful view from its top-fl oor position,’ she says.’

To maintain the clutter-free walls in the open-plan spaces, the Petrones thought about fitting underfloor heating during the build, but dismissed the idea as they thought it wouldn’t have been adequate for such a large house. Instead they chose radiators and a new condensing boiler. ‘The best thing about our heating system is that we can switch it on by remote control from our smartphones,’ says Dan. ‘It’s activated by a wirelessly controlled thermostat.’

The couple also use their phones to control the wireless Philips Hue lights in the hallway. ‘It’s really cool. They’re LED lightbulbs that can connect to the internet, so we can plug them in and control them with our smartphone,’ adds Dan. The lights can be activated at night for security, plus they can be turned to any colour of the spectrum. ‘You can take a photo and the Hue system will blend the lights to re-create the picture’s colour mood,’ says Dan. ‘It is far more affordable than home automation. The bulbs cost around £30 each, but for what they can do, I think they’re good value.’

It’s clear the Petrones have fallen in love with their light and spacious home, its gadgets and garden views. Do they have any regrets? ‘That we didn’t install underfloor heating under the bathroom tiles. But it’s no big deal,’ says Nathalie. ‘We love this place anyway. Every morning we wake up with a big grin on our faces.’

The costs

Extension work to front of house£40,000
Bathroom sanitaryware£27,000
Cellar tanking£15,000
Dressing room£7,000
Parquet flooring and tiles£3,000